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By James Wegg | January 12, 2005

“No one should have to do anything against their will,” says Hang Tuah (M. Nasir, coolly understated throughout) before single-handedly annihilating a band of ruffians who have come to force the daughter of a market hawker into marriage with their master. Thus the opening action sequence in Puteri Gunung Ledang establishes Tuah’s credentials as martial arts master (Pentjak Silat), philosopher and protector of the weak. This contrasts wonderfully with the stoicism of Princess Ledang (Tiara Jacquelina, the model of composure stoked by desire), his one time lover who abandons her fabled life to live atop a Malaysian mountain until her true love returns.

By combining two well-known 15th Century legends, first-time director Saw Teong Hin has taken the risk on angering the Gods by re-working their personal stories (with screenwriter Mamat Khalid), but has cobbled together a remarkable achievement that revels on the big screen, providing spectacular views of the country and daring to let the emotional content simmer just beneath the surface through the characters’ expressions.

The pacing is deliberately slow with just a few action segments (notably the duel between Tuah and Gusti Adipati Handaya Ningrat – Alex Komang – where the brief descent to hell and the ensuing moment of truth-or-consequences forgive any blemishes in the surrounding special effects.

It falls to the music and dance to carry and reinforce the thoughtful tone and quiet dignity of this quest for true love and the timeless struggle between dreams of hope and the moral shackles of responsibility. The generous use of traditional instruments (particularly the husky wooden flute, soaring effortlessly from phrase to phrase) and the modern day string orchestra, usually separate but knowingly (composer, Daniel Yu Wai Kwok; orchestrator Tan Yan Wei) combined, gives the proceedings a wider range of colour than many other epic productions. The court dancers, despite some ensemble problems, add another layer of regal movement.

But none of that compares to the forever memorable moment following the Princess’ finger-rich solo when Tuah joins her, producing a Pas de deux whose sensual subtext goes right to the heart. Marvellous.

However, in the reunion coupling, where everyone agrees that “reality does not measure up to my dreams,” the constantly circling camera makes the viewer as dizzy as the lovers, but soon redeems itself with a three-head shot that speaks volumes about the paradox of marrying an enemy to save a nation.

Failing to be true, Tuah resigns as Lord Admiral and hurls his jeweled kris into the river then dashes through the mud before collapsing and taking the “Jesus-on-the-cross” position while wondering “What did I do wrong?”

Moments later Sultan Mahmud Shah (Adlin Aman Ramlie, needing a cup more of evil to convince) prepares to sacrifice his own son in order to secure the hand of the most impressive bride in the world. But his murderous decision (seconds after the c**k crows – adding another biblical reference) only serves to release the Princess from her agreement, walking away to exile effectively covered in the actual words of her seven demands.

And so the legends live on, and this film, itself a labor of love, should be seen and taken as the first magical step along the perilous road of bringing fine art to the screen.

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